Analysis: Liberman’s transformation

Now, with an election on the horizon, Liberman is starting to look at everything – from the status quo to the Europeans – in a much different light.

Avigdor Liberman (photo credit: REUTERS)
Avigdor Liberman
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In December 2012, a little more than a month before the January 22, 2013, elections, Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman repeatedly slammed the European Union.
At the annual Jerusalem Post Diplomatic Conference that year, Liberman said “all expressions and promises of commitment to Israel’s security from all around the world remind me of similar commitments made to Czechoslovakia [in 1938], and the pressure made on the Czech president to partition the Sudetenland. After all the promises and guarantees that were provided, Nazi Germany occupied all of Czechoslovakia, bringing an end to its existence,” A day earlier, in an Israel Radio interview, Liberman compared the EU’s policies toward Israel to the policies of the European countries in the 1930s and 1940s.
“I am not happy with Europe’s position that for another time in history it ignores calls to destroy Israel,” he said. “Hamas leaders said repeatedly that their goal is clear – to destroy the State of Israel. And Europe is quiet. The EU’s call yesterday was not condemnation of Hamas’s statements, but a call for Hamas heads to refrain from inflammatory statements. We already went through that with Europe at the end of the 1930s and in the 1940s.”
Liberman’s critics at the time attributed his harsh criticism to the upcoming election and the assumption that tough talk to the world played well with his constituency. His supporters, however, argued that he was simply responding directly to what he felt was blatantly unfair treatment of Israel by the EU.
And here we are again, at the cusp of yet another election, and the Europeans are again being featured in Liberman’s comments. But now he is coming not to bury the Europeans, but to praise them.
“We must reach a diplomatic agreement – not because of the Palestinians or the Arabs, but because of the Jews,” he said in an address Tuesday night at Tel Aviv University.
“This is important for our relations with the European Union and the United States. For anyone who doesn’t know, our largest market is the EU, in both exports and imports. I’m pleased with what we’ve done with the Chinese; there’s been growth in our trade with them. But in the end, our biggest market is the EU.”
In two years Liberman went from saying there were many in Europe who would sell Israel up the river without batting an eyelash, to saying that economic ties with Europe must be a deciding factor in determining Israeli diplomatic positions.
Change of heart? Perhaps, people are known to change their mind from time to time.
Election posturing? Also likely, politicians are known to posture before an election.
European diplomatic officials who took the vinegar Liberman dished out in 2012 in stride, figuring it was connected to the election campaign, are equally taking his sweet words toward them now with a dose of skepticism.
Obviously, one European official said, it is pleasing to see that Liberman realizes the importance of economic ties with Europe. But on the other hand, he added, it is clear that this might have something to do with election calculations.
And the calculus is simple.
In 2012 attacking the Europeans was widely perceived as a way to win votes on the Right. But now, with the Right firmly in the grips of Naftali Bennett’s Bayit Yehudi and the Likud parties, Liberman’s gambit is to move toward the middle, wanting to appear as the pragmatist who takes the world’s opinion very much into consideration. Hence his wink toward the Europeans, who not too long ago he castigated.
At a speech on Wednesday Liberman characterized himself as the representative of the “pragmatic national camp,” saying the upcoming election is a race between the utopian Left, the pragmatic national camp, and the “extreme fanatical national camp that ignores reality.”
During that speech he repeated one of his common theme’s of late, that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sanctified the status quo, and did not initiate any grand diplomatic plan on his own.
While there may be merits in his argument, its resonance three months before an election is different than what it would have been had he made it 13 months before the country was set to go to the polls.
Liberman, is should be recalled, has been foreign minister since 2009, with an 11-month lapse in 2012-13 awaiting results of an indictment against him. Even with the interlude, Liberman was Foreign Ministry for quite some time, sitting in an office from which one would be able to initiate diplomatic steps, if one so desired.
True, the final say is with the prime minister, but the foreign minister is not a junior minister without a voice on these matters.
Granted, Liberman has lately been talking about a diplomatic plan, and in an interview with The Jerusalem Post in August he said the 2002 Saudi initiative could form the basis of a wider regional accord that would deal with Israel’s ties with the Arab world, the Israeli Arabs and the Palestinians.
But beyond talking about that plan in very general terms, he has not spelled out in any detail how exactly such a plan would work.
Moreover, regarding the status quo that Liberman is harshly criticizing, up until recently he was an advocate of managing the conflict with the Palestinians, not necessarily believing it was possible to solve it.
In December 2011, Liberman said that with the Middle East in turmoil, it was not the time to think that a peace agreement with the Palestinians could be reached any time soon.
“In the midst of an earthquake do you start to lay the foundations for a new building?” he asked.
And in February 2013, during that 11 month period when he was not foreign minister but was still head of Yisrael Beytenu, Liberman said prior to US President Barack Obama’s visit to Israel that “anyone who thinks that in the center of the diplomatic, political and social tsunami that is shaking the Arab world it is possible to get a magical solution of comprehensive peace with the Palestinians does not understand.
It is impossible to reach a comprehensive agreement with the Palestinians,” he said. “It is impossible to solve the conflict, it needs to be managed.”
That was then. But now, with an election on the horizon, Liberman is starting to look at everything – from the status quo to the Europeans – in a much different light.